Simply Quartet
Haydn / Dvořák

Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2022-09-11

4.5-star rating

2022-09-18 — Original posting


Simply Quartet (© Roland Unger)
Simply Quartet (© Roland Unger)

Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & Time
Kirche St.Peter in Zurich
, 2022-09-11 17:00h
Series / TitleNeue Konzertreihe Zürich, Streichquartette in der Kirche St.Peter
OrganizerHochuli Konzert AG
Reviews from related eventsConcerts at Kirche St.Peter, Zurich
Concerts in this Series
Concert performances of Dvořák’s String Quartet No.14 in A♭ major, op.105

This was the last concert in this year’s series of string quartet recitals at Kirche St.Peter—a full success, it seems!


The Ensemble: Simply Quartet

Simply Quartet was founded 2008 in Shanghai. Initially it was a purely Chinese ensemble. 2012, the quartet moved to Vienna, to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts. The quartet now features the following musicians:

  • Danfeng Shen, violin (China, founding member)
  • Antonia Rankersberger, violin (Austria, since 2018)
  • Xiang Lyu, viola (China, since 2010)
  • Ivan Valentin Hollup Roald, cello (Norway, since 2016)

Danfeng Shen performs on a 1753 violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786), Antonia Rankersberger on an instrument (1770 – 1780) by Ferdinando Gagliano (1724 – 1781). For additional information (teachers, competitions prizes, concert career) see also the German Wikipedia.


Program


Setting, etc.

String quartet events in the Kirche St.Peter are popular: even on a sunny day like this one, the nave was well-filled. The limited seating on the balconies was not open to the general public, as the rear balcony serves as artists’ room for quartet recitals. I again had the exceptional privilege of having access to a “photographer’s seat” on the organ balcony, next to the organ’s Rückpositiv, with excellent view onto the podium.


Concert & Review

Franz Joseph Haydn
Joseph Haydn

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20/4

Composer & Work

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) composed his collection of 6 String Quartets, op.20, in 1772. This group of quartets is one of the first highlights of the genre and earned the composer the reputation as the “father of the string quartet”. The String Quartet in D major, op.20/4, features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro di molto
  2. Un poco adagio e affettuoso
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese — Trio
  4. Presto scherzando

It probably was mere coincidence that the two last events in the string quartet series in the Kirche St.Peter featured “almost the same” program. Both concerts started with a work by the “father of the string quartet”, Joseph Haydn, followed by one of Dvorak’s last string quartets (see my review of the concert on 2022-08-21, with the Pavel Haas Quartet). As for the Haydn part: here at least, the two ensembles selected works at the “opposite end” within the prominent part of the composer’s oeuvre. The selection of an “early” quartet, though, does not mean “simple” or “easy”!

The Performance

As always in string quartet recitals, I was curious about hierarchy, interactions, and “internal connections” within the ensemble. Danfeng Shen certainly has a lead function, both as the only founding member, as well as in his function as first violinist. But apart from that, interestingly, there weren’t many indications for a hierarchy, such as visual cues, or members seeking or keeping close (visual) contact with a “lead member”. By and large, the musicians appeared to keep contact through peripheral vision, except for occasional, more friendly, casual (I’m tempted to say: social) eye contacts—neither trying to exert control, nor seeking help.

At the same time, it was obvious that Simply Quartet profited from thorough familiarity with the respective parts, and/or substantial rehearsal time & experience with the work. The musicians mostly kept their head oriented towards the sheet music. However, the listener got the impression that they almost knew their part by heart, as they were often playing with (half-)closed eyes. Overall: already the visual impression was refreshing and showed an amazingly experienced, competent ensemble.

The quartet performed with modern, Tourte type bows and presumably metal or metal-clad strings.

I. Allegro di molto

First bars / first impressions: a fluid tempo, and fluid, mellow articulation. Haydn’s notation of course leaves room for interpretation—not just in the tempo, but also in the articulation. The opening bar consists of three tied staccato crotchets. The same motif reappears throughout the movement. Does this refer to three staccato notes under the same bow, or just three gently separated crotchets (portato). Both options appear viable and are used. Simply Quartet chose the “mellow” option, in line with the gentle, restrained, intimate, almost murmuring tone in the 30-bar introduction: beautiful, harmonious! One might argue that this sounds like Adagio, as the listener feels entire bars, not 3/4. However, I suspect that that’s exactly the composer’s intent.

Contrasts…

The f in bar 31 brought a stark, almost explosive, dynamic contrast. The church acoustics softened the articulation, particularly with the quavers in the first violin. This did not defeat the dynamics, and Danfeng Shen’s agile, virtuosic articulation was still audible. However, it “harmonized” the contrasting elements—after all, the accompaniment still features the tied crotchets from the introduction. And the poignant unison in the f eruption (bar 82) gave a first impression of the ensemble’s unanimity, its excellent coordination.

The quartet’s unanimity also showed in coherent dynamics and expression, in the internal balance. If the first violin often dominated, that was in Haydn’s setting, which typically has the lower three voices as accompaniment to the solo. However, the development part showed that the ensemble consists of equal partners with excellent, fitting sonority. I liked the quartet’s detailed, diligent dynamics and phrasing—and particularly the inconspicuous vibrato (if there was any at all!).

The f in bars 212 – 215 was performed p. I don’t say that this was an error: perhaps it’s an error in my score? To the contrary: the p made sense, as it made this passage sound like a subtle ethereal echo—I liked the idea!
★★★★½

II. Un poco adagio e affettuoso

Clearly, the slow movement—a theme and four variations—is the one that profited the most from the ensemble’s very restricted / selective use of vibrato, which essentially remained inconspicuous throughout the movement: a noteworthy pleasure to listen to, for sure! Actually, the artists proved that vibrato is not needed to express affettuoso. Gentle swaying in combination with subtle dynamics were all that was needed to achieve a warm, affectionate atmosphere.

The first violin presented the theme, soon getting support by the second violin. In the first variation (admirably steady in the pace), the middle voices took the lead. Antonia Rankersberger’s violin turned out absolutely equivalent to Danfeng Shen’s, while the imitations on Xiang Lyu’s viola offered a beautiful contrast, with its characteristic, darker colors. Naturally, in the second variation, Ivan Valentin Hollup Roald got an opportunity to show the beautiful, velvety tone, the singing qualities of his instrument.

Variations 3 & 4, Coda

Variation 3 returns the lead role to the first violin, in flowing semiquaver triplets—gentle, never domineering. Variation 4 starts with a return of the original theme, but sotto voce. I noted an extra, beautiful fioritura in bar 78—an excellent idea to avoid a 1:1 repeat!

Towards the end of the theme, Haydn mutates the theme into a 32-bar Coda, starting with a descending scale in impeccably pure, clean parallel thirds on the two violins—devoid of vibrato, of course. An ascending ff scale with all four instruments in unison is not the end. Rather, Haydn added a set of episodes: four bars with calm, subtle rolling semiquaver sextuplets in the first violin, five bars with fz accents alternating with p quavers—only then, the six final bars take the movement to a pp ending.

The ensemble’s tempo choice was ideal: a calm (Adagio!), stepping pace, yet never dragging (like a Lento). The entire movement was devoid of unrest, the quartet’s ability to maintain the selected tempo through these variations was astounding.
★★★★½

III. Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese — Trio

The third movement is a little gem—and far from a simple Menuetto! The actual menuet “alla zingarese” (“in gypsy tone”) is in 3/4 time, but through alternating, shifted syncopes, Haydn confuses the listener, making the piece sound in 2/4 time. I could easily imagine more of a caricature (in the sense of a clumsy peasant dance) in this movement—however, with the scherzando in the final movement, it was certainly a good idea to avoid exaggerations here.

The Trio is in proper 3/4 time, hence feels slower than the menuet, even though the tempo was almost identical. On the other hand, the Trio gave the cellist a chance to lead the ensemble with his solo in light quavers: beautiful!
★★★★½

IV. Presto scherzando

A typical Haydn finale: full of fun, jokes and surprises! The interpretation by Simply Quartet was fast, agile, virtuosic, technically excellent, very good in coordination and coherence. The piece was fast enough to give the listener a hard time in following all the details, the alternating lead roles, the imitations, and the like. However, it was often Xiang Lyu’s viola which caught my attention. Within all this fast action, it was astounding how well the viola could make its beautiful, warm voice heard: a tribute not just to the artist and his instrument, but of course also to the composer.

A tad (too) fast, maybe? Despite all the fascination for the ensemble’s virtuosity and technical excellence, I personally would have preferred a slightly slower performance with less focus on virtuosity. This would have allowed for more indulgence in the jokes & fun aspect. With such movements, I always picture contemporary audiences breaking out in laughter!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Antonín Dvořák
Antonín Dvořák

Dvořák: String Quartet No.14 in A♭ major, op.105, B.193

Composer & Work

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed the last two of his string quartets in parallel. His last quartet, String Quartet No.14 in A♭ major, op.105, B.193 was completed in 1895, after the composer’s return from the United States. The quartet No.14 appeared shortly ahead of String Quartet No.13 in G major, op.106, B.192, hence the mix-up with the quartet and the opus numbering. This quartet is the composer’s last piece of “absolute” music. Thereafter, he only composed “program music”, such as symphonic poems and opera. The quartet op.105 has four movements:

  1. Adagio ma non troppo — Allegro appassionato
  2. Molto vivace
  3. Lento e molto cantabile
  4. Allegro non tanto

The Performance

Amazing: with the “time jump” by 120+ years between Haydn’s op.20 (1772) and Dvořák’s op.105 (1895), Simply Quartet almost sounded like a different set of musicians! With Haydn, the vibrato (if present at all) was hardly noticeable—here, the ensemble switched to an expressive tone, with a distinct “Bohemian” vibrato, most conspicuous with the lead voice, the first violin. In general, I’m not a friend of strong vibrato. Here, however, it was absolutely fitting: no objections at all! Albeit noticeable and expressive, it was not excessive, not nervous, rather harmonious, and it did not have any detrimental effect on the intonation. After all, Dvořák without vibrato is hardly imaginable!

I. Adagio ma non troppo — Allegro appassionato

In the Adagio ma non troppo introduction, the ensemble instantly “sucked in” the listener’s attention—not just through its expressive tone, but through an impressive dynamic span, with breathtaking, rapid swelling and decrescendo, and powerful, unanimous outbursts. In bar 10, Danfeng Shen even dramaticized the descending crescendo scale by portamento, discreet, not exaggerated, though. The transition to the Allegro appassionato felt harmonious, compelling, however…

One of the very few quibbles I had through the entire event: with the cantabile in bar 24, I felt a sudden switch to a slightly faster tempo. The difference was subtle, but enough to cause a trace of discomfort. Did Danfeng Shen realize that he started the Allegro appassionato a tad slow? A mishap? The correction (if it was one) did not feel entirely successful (i.e., inconspicuous). Throughout the movement there are many transitions, with the composer’s numerous, sudden or gradual tempo changes, explicit rubato (ritenuto in tempo). All these were absolutely compelling and coherent—with this one (accidental?) exception.

The performance was dramatic, intense, and highly atmospheric, and the quartet not only demonstrated coherence and unanimity, but the musicians presented themselves as equivalent in technique, expression, and sonority. In Dvořák’s music, everybody’s contribution is equally important, and everybody gets their chance to demonstrate their sonority, technique, and individual character. Without any doubt: Simply Quartet fulfills these requirements to a high degree!
★★★★

II. Molto vivace

A movement full of changes in character! The performance was excellent throughout, and highly atmospheric. There was the distinct Slavonic swaying, the syncopes, the sudden switches in rhythm, to a different scenery—seamless in all transitions. The music felt so “typically Dvořák”, Bohemian—and then again, there were these moments that reminded so strongly of the “American” influences in the composer’s late works. As already in the Haydn quartet, the ensemble appeared to maintain coherence and coordination with minimal (if not often casual) direct visual interaction. And in all this, the quartet demonstrated an exceptional range of colors and sonorities.
★★★★½

III. Lento e molto cantabile

Rich and detailed in the expressive dynamics—and in all this, the musicians maintained clean intonation, also in highly exposed passages, such as with the first violin in extreme, very high positions. Also the sonority remained excellent, beautiful: it’s not the first time in this recital that the violins demonstrated an amazingly dark color on the g and d’ stings, close to the sound of a viola. The latter, though, was of course hard to beat in its expressively singing, characterful, slightly grainy “vox humana” color.

The musicians followed the music through its intense climax, onto the second part, forming an intense discourse between four personalities, intimate, expressive and emotional. The movement builds up to another climax, then returns to intimacy, ending in a ppp transfiguration. Beautiful, touching music!

There might be a temptation to overdo the expression, the emotions in this music—Simply Quartet avoided exaggerations (such as excessive broadening in a climax). While the musicians maintained control, the performance remained engaged, intense at all times—it never even hinted at sounding neutral, let alone sterile.
★★★★½

IV. Allegro non tanto

The dramatic, menacing entry in the cello (leading into a tremolo response in the other instruments) seemed to announce an impending disaster. However, moments later, the music seemed to burst from dancing joy. Also here, the movement is constantly changing moods, atmosphere: from playful to folksy, to expressive, glimpses of a baroque fugato (in Slavonic spirit, though), then again there were “pointers” to Dvořák’s late symphonies, and even more so these “American” moments. These are of course not truly American, but motifs and harmonies that resemble those in compositions that Dvořák’s created during his stay in the United States, and of course his “American” String Quartet No.12 in F major, op.96.

There is no doubt in my mind that the last movement is the most challenging one. Simply Quartet’s performance reached an astounding technical and musical level (the frenetic applause spoke for itself). I could not pinpoint any weaknesses in the quartet’s playing—but I felt that in this final movement, there is still potential for a gain in expressive coherence (penetrating power, maybe?). However, achieving highest levels in this probably takes years of joint experience. That said: Simply Quartet’s performance was very impressive, technically outstanding, enthralling, and filled with joy of playing. Throughout the composition, there was never any “dead” moment, no drop in tension, suspense.
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Encore — Haydn: String Quartet in G major, op.76/1 (III. Menuet: Presto)

Composer & Work

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) composed his last collection of 6 String Quartets, op.76, the so-called “Erdödy” quartets, in 1796/1797. Within op.76, the String Quartet in G major, op.76/1, features the following four movements:

  1. Allegro con spirito
  2. Adagio sostenuto
  3. Menuetto: Presto
  4. Allegro ma non troppo

Antonia Rankersberger announced the third movement, Menuetto: Presto from op.76/1 as encore. I have heard Haydn’s op.76/1 twice in concert so far—by coincidence, the last time was in the previous string quartet recital in the same venue, on 2022-08-21, i.e., less than a month ago.

The Performance

After the excitement, the drama, the intense expression in Dvořák’s last string quartet, a (more) seasoned ensemble might have chosen a reflective, solemn, introverted or lyrical movement as encore. The Pavel Haas Quartet did exactly that a few weeks ago, after Dvořák’s String Quartet No.13 in G major, op.106. Simply Quartet, however, returned to Haydn, for another demonstration of playfulness, joy, fun, and virtuosity. A light, slender and agile performance, playfully dancing in the folksy Trio, serene, light-hearted, joking, and fast—fascinating!
★★★★½


Conclusions

Simply Quartet are definitely an ensemble at the forefront among the string quartets of their generation: excellent, both musically, as well as technically. A formation to watch out for over the coming (hopefully many) years!


Acknowledgement

The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Hochuli Konzert AG, for the press ticket to this concert.



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